Effects of Supermax Confinement on Postrelease Recidivism and Employment

Corrections Research

A study led by H. Daniel Butler found confinement in supermax prisons have little effect on recidivism, employment and completion of post-release treatment programs.

Despite higher costs, confinement in supermax prisons appears to have a limited effect on postrelease recidivism, employment, or completion of community-based treatment programs, according to a published study.

The study, “Assessing the Effects of Exposure to Supermax Confinement on Offender Postrelease Behaviors,” found that exposure to supermax confinement did not influence postrelease outcomes, such as being rearrested, facing reincarceration, securing employment, or completing treatment programming. The study, led by H. Daniel Butler, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Sam Houston State University, was published in The Prison Journal.

“Our analyses revealed no evidence that exposure to supermax confinement affected offenders’ odds of recidivism or other postrelease outcomes,” said Butler. “The findings pertaining to recidivism are generally consistent with those observed in other studies, although we also observed that the null effects on recidivism persisted seven years after offenders were released from prison.”

With prison populations increasing between 1970 and 2003, supermax facilities began to appear in the 1980s to house violent or disruptive inmates, manage gangs, and increase public and institutional safety. These highly restrictive units enforce single cell confinement for up to 23 hours a day with limited opportunities for socialization or program participation. Confinement to these units was believed to deter future criminal behavior, and 44 states report having these types of facilities.

“If supermax confinement is not effective in achieving its goals, then the costs versus the benefits should be examined,” said Butler. “The costs of operating a supermax facility far surpass the costs of operating a typical maximum security prison. With shrinking state budgets, many states are hesitant to invest in programs that are not evidence-based or functional. The null effect of exposure to supermax confinement we observed here would not lend support to the continued use of supermax confinement because cheaper and more efficient alternatives exist to incapacitate or control violent and predatory inmates.”

The study, by Butler, Benjamin Steiner, Matthew D. Mararios and Lawrence F. Travis III, is available from the The Prison Journal.

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